Outbreaks of everything from the pervasive, drug-resistant Candida auris fungus (or C. auris) to the fast-traveling coronavirus understandably have caused worldwide alarm. Yet these incidents actually may be opportunities for senior living community staff members to improve the cleanliness of their communities by boosting internal sanitization processes and tightening disinfecting loopholes.

Plus, taking action is better than waiting for a worrisome epidemic or pandemic to hit home.

Infectious disease worries at long-term care facilities

What makes senior living and care buildings natural targets for the spread of diseases and infections? As the World Health Organization notes, older adults have a particularly high risk of serious complications and death if they contract any virus — including the coronavirus. Plus, seniors living in hospital-like environments are statistically more likely to perish from the millions of expected infections that spring up annually. This means residents and staff members require thoroughly disinfected surfaces that stay germ-free via routine protocols.

The most pragmatic method for ensuring that a spotless facility is following a carefully planned step-by-step process that focuses on touch points. Generally speaking, diseases spread via contact, whether it’s with another person or a surface. Most long-term care facilities already promote regular wiping of door handles and countertops. But other hot spots, such as well-traveled floors, might be neglected or only superficially wiped down.

Remember, carpeted and tiled floors can just as easily house drug-resistant pathogens, as shown with C. auris: The fungus can infiltrate rooms to such a degree that hard-surface floors can be covered in it. Fortunately, it’s not difficult for senior living community managers to map out the likely touch points that occur throughout their buildings. And as they discern how to rapidly and effectively remove all contaminants, they quell the issues caused by downtime.

As all businesspeople know, downtime in any corporate environment causes waste and inefficiencies. But at a long-term care facility, downtime at the wrong time can mean the difference between life and death. If staff members can’t work for residents, then they can’t fulfill their expected duties. Nonetheless, proper disinfection is essential — particularly now that changing climates might open the door to more prolific diseases and bacteria. In other words, healthcare and janitorial staffers must be able to do their jobs concurrently.

One answer to this logistical problem is opting for dry cleaning methods for carpets; very little water remains after the dry process, and workers can resume their tasks almost immediately. Another solution is for janitorial staff to tackle surfaces based on the community’s ebb and flow of work. That way, cleaning personnel can eradicate viruses such as swine flu — which can survive up to three days on a moist surface — and not get in the way.

Three other strategies to control infectious diseases in senior living communities relate to the choice and use of equipment and products:

1. Set up a rag usage policy. Service contractors frequently buy rags to use for disinfection purposes. Using the same rags in multiple areas, however, simply could move germs from place to place. A better regimen is to outline when rags should be rewashed or disposed of. By following a set cycle, janitorial teams can do their work without putting residents in harm’s way. Ideally, facility managers or janitorial companies should set up required monthly or quarterly training to make sure maintenance staff members stay up to date on rag and equipment expectations.

2. Pick a high-impact disinfectant. Not all disinfectants work well enough to clean up high-touch surfaces. Some might evaporate before bacteria have a chance to die, and others merely kill a small number of germs and leave others behind to become resistant. The right disinfectants will speed up the rate of microbial cell death. At the same time, they don’t leach toxins into the environment, which can pose other health risks in people without strong immune systems. One emerging cleaning method involves using ultraviolet light, which has been proven to mitigate bacterial buildup and doesn’t affect indoor air quality, or IAQ.

3. Go dry when cleaning textiles. Because bacteria thrive in wetter locations, keeping textiles dry is paramount in any assisted living community or skilled nursing facility. Moist textiles (such as rugs that were steam-cleaned recently) can allow bacteria and mildew to grow; this can create secondary respiratory problems furthered by poor IAQ. Dry carpet sanitization that uses almost no water to activate cleaning compounds ensures underfoot textiles get disinfected without getting wet. Plus, dry-cleaned floors can be accessed almost immediately, which takes away worries of downtime (and lowers the risk of slipping). Of course, dry cleaning isn’t an everyday solution; carpets should be vacuumed using a high-filtration system in between restorative deep treatments.

The world is changing in many ways, and a warmer average global temperature could lead to an increase in viral outbreaks. This doesn’t mean that long-term care providers are at their mercy, however. Senior living and care leaders who focus on adopting forward-thinking preventive maintenance can lessen the likelihood of diseases affecting their residents.

Stephen Lewis is the technical director at milliCare, where he manages all equipment, methods and products for the floor- and textile-cleaning company. A certified senior carpet inspector and an IICRC master textile cleaner, he has worked for milliCare for more than 30 years.